Today’s America is a world of solutions and it is almost un-American to even hint that our most pressing problems are intractable and must be endured as one might suffer terrible weather. Even tribulations that have perplexed societies for millennia will be solved if we just do the research, roll up our sleeves and spend the money. Guaranteed.
Underlying this optimism is an assumption that clear-cut standards exist regarding “success.” So, for example, an anti-poverty program will be judged by how it uplifts people out of poverty. Moreover, the anti-poverty experts cannot possibly imagine recipients of the ameliorative effort disdaining the expert-provided definitions of “success.” Imagine if an anti-poverty policy wonk facing one failed nostrum after another finally concluded that millions of American liked being shiftless? Can any right-thinking do-gooder even picture Hillbillies chasing away the social workers shouting “we like doing nothing and getting high!”
Let me offer a contrarian view regarding calibrating social engineering endeavors: many failures reflect contrary definitions of “success”–one man’s failure is another man’s success.
Education abounds in failures that are really successes and this helps explain why all the billions spent regularly fail to move the achievement needle.
The sorrowful Baltimore’s public schools perfectly illustrate how failure can equal success. Let’s start with the alleged failure. According to recent state data, one-third of High Schools in Baltimore, despite spending on average $16,000 per year per studen t (a total of $1.4 billion), did not have a single student proficient in math while nine out of ten boys in the system could not read at grade level. Moreover, at another of Baltimore’s six high schools, a mere 1% tested proficient at math (all and all, 14 of 3804 scored “proficient” at math). Frederick Douglass High School boasted of an 87% graduation rate, but only a single student out of 185 scored proficient in math. And don’t believe the upbeat news that 70% of the students in the system actually graduate since it is now reported that nearly three quarters of Baltimore’s schools fudged the transcripts to fake the graduation statistics.
Now, how can one possibly deem Baltimore’s schools successful? To understand this apparent contradiction, imagine blacks in Baltimore trying to create high-paying jobs in the city. They might begin with the familiar Chamber of Commerce recipes—enterprise zones, tax abatements, luring foreign firms, and even creating city-subsidized “incubators” to jump-start local entrepreneurial techie ventures. All are iffy, to say the least, particularly since Baltimore has little to offer companies insisting on a well-trained, educated workforce.
There is, however, one guaranteed answer to their prayers: the city’s public school system for the simple reasons that one, schools are state mandated so Baltimore must have them and two, in today’s education obsessed world, there’s a ton of gold in them thar hills. In other words, schools would be the cash cow given that Washington and the state, and perhaps even some private donors, would gladly rush to subsidize them no matter how awful their performance. Best of all, since nearly everything was tax-funded and politically driven, there is no worry about private investors bailing out or closing everything down. And who could possibly reject the idea of investing in the children to build a prosperous Baltimore?
The winning business model is self-evident: make certain that the schools were academically dreadful and in such a way to provide African Americans with well-paying jobs not otherwise available in the private sector. Happily, much of this “success” can be accomplished on auto pilot: don’t enforce discipline, retain the most disruptive students, substitute fluff for serious learning, tolerate open smoking of marijuana and ignore schoolyard violence and vandalism. Meanwhile, classrooms supplies would mysteriously vanish while marginally qualified teachers and administrators would insist that the kids could not possibly learn anything since most equipment was either broken or missing. With this “program” in place, better students (disproportionally white or Asian) would quickly flee and test scores would hit rock bottom. Mission accomplished.
We are not claiming that this disaster was carefully orchestrated but it has proved a great success. There are now thousands of employees in the Baltimore school system plus a small army of outside consultants and contractors who earn in excess of $100,000 per year. A principal can top out at nearly $170,000 annually and even Assistant Principals and administrators can earn north of $125,000 a year, not bad given their “accomplishments.”
Going one step further, these numbers exclude all those whose livelihood depends on these schools turning out undisciplined, semi-literate “graduates” with terrible work habits. These range from a small army of school police to those providing remedial math and English instruction at community colleges. And let’s not forget the thousands of government and think-tank experts toiling away to invent the next “guaranteed” jargon-filled fix for Baltimore’s educational dystopia. Difficult to estimate cost for the nation as a whole, but given the significant number of other horrific school districts, millions of Americans owe their livelihoods to these certified educational disasters.
Indeed, the close-the-race-gap-in-academic-achievement mission alone is one of America’s leading make-work industries. (When Newark NJ received Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to close this gap, plus another $100 million in matching funds, it could hire $1000 a day consultants and though these consultant expenditures eventually totaled $20 million, their advice made no difference other than a modest jump in the easy-to-fudge graduation rate.)
A realist might even argue that this failure-equals-success model thrives given its superiority over any local career alternative. After all, given the choice of a career in the Baltimore schools versus say a job at Under Armour, a major Baltimore corporation, the benefits of the former for those of middling ability are indisputable. Public school jobs also outshine employment in charter schools where lousy results guarantee unemployment. That black civil rights organizations such as the NAACP or the Black Congressional Caucus bitterly oppose charter schools only confirms this failure-equals-success business model.
Realists might also contend that this deception is harmless given the intractability of the problem—trying to educate low-IQ youngsters disdaining education with dreadful home environments is equivalent to extracting blood from turnips. It is thus foolish to attempt miracle cures and a jobs program is Baltimore’s best option. Consider what might occur if, in fact, most students left school at 15—massive unemployment among blacks who otherwise would have had decent jobs. In other words, as deplorable as the Baltimore situation is, it could be worse.
Viewed broadly, dozens of these alleged failures in cities like Detroit, St. Louis, MO, Newark, NJ and Washington DC provide good-paying jobs to African Americans who would otherwise struggle to find comparable private sector positions and, here’s the bottom line regarding this wastefulness: the standard of success should be the whether racial peace accompanies the deceit. Calculated in these harsh cost/benefit terms, Baltimore and the likes are a resounding success. Consider the downside if private firms where hired to perform educational miracles and began their hard-nosed quests with massive firings and draconian cost-cutting measures? What private firm responsible only to is stockholders would double down as test scores continued to decline?
A gulf between a policy’s ostensible mission and the measure of its “true” accomplishment is hardly limited to education. A similar gap exists in failed early childhood intervention programs like Head Start whose official purpose is to close race-related cognitive gaps but, like “failed schools” it has become a government make jobs program. Similar in duplicity are expensive outreach programs directed at the curing mental illness among homeless population, a perfect recipe to cure joblessness among middle class professionals while simultaneously strengthening public unions. Ditto for foreign aid to Africa—hopeless but lucrative, Meanwhile, thanks to the current mania over sexual harassment and inclusion, universities create make-work positions whose unstated purpose is to boost the school’s diversity numbers.
All of these examples raise the question of whether honesty is the best policy when examining government funded programs that inevitably only expand as failures mount. Should Congress enact a Truth in Labeling law to strip away duplicitous language? Now, Head Start might be re-branded as The Federal Child Welfare Employment Act in light of its iffy impact on academic achievement so tax-payers would know what they were buying. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind sould be The Educational Bureaucracy Expansion Act of 2001.
Let me suggest that honesty is often not the best policy, especially for keeping the peace. Using Noble Lies for this purpose is also deeply ingrained in our culture that insists we can fix even the most troublesome problem. Imagine the fallout from an honest discussion of Baltimore’s schools? Or foreign aid to Africa? Yes, most of the money might vanish but such is the price to pay when millions of Americans are best qualified for these government-funded make-work projects.